A U.S. effort to rescue American hostages in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran ended in failure on April 24, 1980. The Army Special Forces unit tasked with the mission was to rescue 53 hostages being detained by Iran.
The secret mission was complicated, involving the movement of the ground force element – known as Delta Force – landing in three MC-130 fixed-wing aircraft at a location called Desert One. The rendezvous location was located southeast of Tehran. At this first location the ground force would link up with eight RH-53D Sea Stallion helicopters flown by Marine pilots that took off from a Navy carrier (Nimitz) in the Arabian Sea. Once the choppers refueled the ground force (Delta) would board the helicopters and fly to new locations closer to Tehran.
During the second night the rescue party would then enter Iran’s capital city, storm the embassy compound, free the hostages, and then move them to a nearby soccer stadium. From there the hostages would be transported to a seized airstrip outside Tehran where fixed-wing aircraft would evacuate them out of the country.
Two small teams had previously entered Iran to conduct a recon of the rendezvous site in the desert, the hide sites used for the second night, the embassy, and other locations. These teams also set up a network for the transport of men, equipment, and hostages in and around the city.
The primary assault force was Delta. A unit of the 75th Ranger Regiment would provide security at Desert One. An Army Special Forces team from Det A (Berlin) – specially trained in mountain operations – would assault the foreign ministry where three diplomats were being held. There was also a small Air Force combat control team to coordinate movements on the desert landing strip.
The planning and practice for the rescue mission had taken place in the previous months prior to the execution of the raid. The rescue was to take place over two days.
Operation Eagle Claw was cut short because one of the abort criteria had been reached. There was an insufficient number of helicopters with which to conduct the raid. The mission started with eight. Two never made it to the rendezvous location. One developed a maintenance problem on the ground. That left only five to conduct the mission – and the operation required six. The commander, Charlie Beckwith, aborted the mission and gave the order for withdrawal of the rescue party from Iran.
At that point disaster struck when one of the helicopters – while repositioning at Desert One – collided with a parked C-130 loaded with fuel bladders causing an explosion. The mission would cost the lives of eight men, seven helicopters, and a C-130.
The failure of Operation Eagle Claw was an embarrassment for the United States. The Carter administration certainly lost credibility – as it had failed to recover the hostages either through diplomatic or military means.
The failed rescue attempt prompted a review by the U.S. military and Congress. One result was the establishment of the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) and other specialized units that would bring ‘jointness’ to the U.S. special operations community.
Iran Hostage Rescue Mission Report, Naval History and Heritage Command, August 1980. Read the report online. Also known as the “Holloway Report”.
The Holloway Report: Did it Reflect all the Facts and Lessons Learned?, by William F. Kernan, Army War Collge, March 1987.
“The Desert One Debacle”, The Atlantic, by Mark Bowden, May 2006.
Operation Eagle Claw – Special Forces History
40th Anniversary of Operation Eagle Claw. Operation Eagle Claw ended in tragedy and serves as the genesis of special operations forces reform and revitalization. (video by USSOCOM, April 24, 2020, 15 mins)
Top photo: Damaged aircraft at Desert One.